King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, armed with studies to back ORCA LIFT
King County Councilmember
Dave Upthegrove,
armed with studies
to back ORCA LIFT
Sound Transit held a hearing on the proposals for fare increases and honoring ORCA LIFT on ST Express and Sounder last Thursday, followed by a meeting of the board’s Operations and Administration Committee, where the proposals were vetted for a recommendation to the full board.

Sunnie Sterling, ST’s Revenue Analysis Manager, gave staff’s reason for bringing forward a fare proposal on ST Express as the need to consolidate its fares with partner agencies. Currently, the Regional Reduced Fare Permit fare — for seniors and riders with disabilities — on intra-county ST Express is 75 cents, while the RRFP fare on Link, Metro, Seattle Streetcars, Community Transit local buses, and Kitsap Transit local buses is $1. Pierce Transit is considering raising its RRFP fare to $1. The youth fare on intra-county ST Express is $1.25, while the youth fare on Link, Metro, Seattle Streetcars, and Community Transit local buses is $1.50. Multi-county ST Express fares are lower than Community Transit commuter fares, and would still be even after the proposed fare increases.

Sterling gave the need to maintain minimum fare recovery goals, and a projection that Sounder will be falling short starting in 2018, as the reason to bring forward the fare proposals for Sounder. Sterling cited the costs of implementing ORCA LIFT as the reason for accelerating proposals on both services.

CORRECTION: In an email from Bruce Gray at Sound Transit, Sterling clarified that “LIFT and the other fare changes are part of updating Sound Transit fare structures on ST Express and Sounder to be consistent with partner agencies’ fares and to implement Board policies regarding farebox recovery goals.”

The additional fare revenue from the proposed fare increases on Sounder is projected to be $566,000 per year. The decreased fare revenue from honoring ORCA LIFT on Sounder is projected to be $56,000.

The additional fare revenue from the proposed fare increase on ST Express, less the decreased fare revenue from honoring ORCA LIFT just on the routes wholly operated in King County, is projected to be $661,000. However, the projection for honoring ORCA LIFT on all ST Express routes is for a $294,000 annual deficit. In other words, the annual cost of honoring LIFT on the routes not wholly operated in King County is projected to be $955,000.

Nine public speakers, all but one of them in favor of full ORCA LIFT adoption on all Sound Transit services, spoke. The ninth speaker complained about highway tolls and the state of the national government, with no mention of any Sound Transit policies. Seven of the speakers were from various groups that had signed on to a coalition letter in support of agency-wide ORCA LIFT adoption, including One America, the Transit Riders Union, Transportation Choices, and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. All eight speakers opposed Option 2 for ST Express, which would implement a LIFT fare only on routes operated wholly within King County (522, 540-567, and 577), pointing out the confusion such a system would create for LIFT riders.

Operations and Administration Committee Meeting

The Operations and Administration Committee met shortly after the hearing, and unanimously agreed with every proposal before it except for the fare proposals. The first three motions were final authorizations for the CEO to execute three two-year contracts, with two-year extensions possible, totaling $2,400,000, for on-call professional asset management services. The assets they are looking to manage better than their peer agencies, over the coming decades, is primarily the light rail line and all its parts, but all of Sound Transit’s physical infrastructure in general. Sound Transit hopes to do most of its maintenance in-house, but values outside expertise enough to spend a little money on it, and get multiple opinions.

Five of the six remaining motions were positive recommendations to the full board for:

  • a contract to extend Metro’s maintenance of a portion of the ST Express fleet for two years. Metro, Pierce Transit, and Community Transit (or rather, First Transit, which holds the contract for CT operations and maintenance) each maintain the buses they operate for ST Express. Metro charges the most, while PT just became slightly cheaper than CT. Sound Transit has made noise about the possibility of opening its own maintenance base, for the Metro portion of its ST Express fleet, but has not acted on it. Staff went through a list of audit recommendations that were rolled into the new agreement.
  • a new Operations and Maintenance Agreement with the Port of Seattle, updating the original agreement from 2009, clarifying maintenance responsibilities for the SeaTac/Airport Station, and removing guideway responsibilities that are already covered under the guideway easements with the Port. A separate agreement for maintenance responsibilities with the Port regarding the 200th St Link extension was made in 2012. One of the terms of the agreement is the hours of operation of SeaTac/Airport Station.
  • the exercising of the five-year option on the original Commuter Rail Service agreement with BNSF for operation of North Sounder, for which the original agreement covered 2004-2015, and the contract extension will cover 2016-2020. The total agreement is limited to $52,945,898, with a limit of $17,836,712 for the period covered by the extension.
  • an amendment to the Commuter Rail Service Agreement with the BNSF Railway Company to incorporate changes related to the south line service agreement including the extension of service to Lakewood on Sound Transit right-of-way and the implementation of positive train control. BNSF has been operating Sounder all the way to Lakewood, and piling up some costs for which the ST board still needs to approve reimbursements. The amendment also paves the way for Amtrak to begin operating on the Tacoma-Lakewood right-of-way starting in 2017.
  • the 2016 Service Improvement Plan, which David detailed on this blog.
  • .
    While the recommendation to the board to adopt the 2016 SIP was unanimous, board member John Marchione (Mayor of Redmond), who was chairing the meeting due to the absence of committee chair Paul Roberts (Everett City Councilmember), took the opportunity to publicly editorialize in favor of having all-day service on routes 541 and 542.

    Part of the SIP discussion covered fleet acquisition, including the new double-talls for some of the ST Express routes Community Transit operates. Board member Dave Enslow (Mayor of Sumner) pined for having double-talls on Pierce County routes. He said the last time he rode on route 590 from Tacoma to Seattle, some riders had to stand. [ST recently reduced 590 runs to match ridership. Riders who don’t want to stand can wait at the front of the line for the next bus, which usually comes in 5 minutes during peak.] Staff explained that having double-talls in Pierce County would require major renovations to some bus stops, in particular Tacoma Dome Station, and to Pierce Transit’s maintenance yard.

    ORCA LIFT Debate

    The discussion on the fare proposals was a rare display of disagreement among Board members.

    Two committee members who represent Sounder stations, Dave Earling (Mayor of Edmonds) and Dave Enslow (Mayor of Sumner), who had not attended the hearing on the topic, avoided talking about ORCA LIFT, and defended the current fares on Sounder. Sounder fares have only been raised once in the agency’s history, back in 2007, when the distance-based fares replaced zone-based fares.

    Committee member Dave Upthegrove (King County Councilmember) was armed with studies showing that transportation is the second-largest expense, behind housing, for families living in poverty. He acknowledged that the committee would not come to agreement behind any fare proposals at that meeting. The committee followed staff’s advice, and forwarded all fare proposals to the full board, without recommendation.

    Similar proposals for all ST services were considered by the board last year, with a low-income fare and fare increases being adopted on Link Light Rail only, which took effect this past March.

    ST staff has provided STB with some additional data regarding ridership and cost projections, which will be presented in an analysis piece later this week.

    31 Replies to “ST Ops Committee Punts ORCA LIFT Debate to Full Board”

    1. I assume that the statement “transportation is the second-largest expense, behind housing, for families living in poverty” is primarily due to car expenses. Across much of the U.S., a car is considered such a basic necessity that, even when people lose their job and fall into poverty, they will cling to their car, even if doing so means losing their home and literally living out of the car. Even if the person is driving the car illegally without registration or insurance, the gas and maintenance costs alone can still be very significant for someone with an income below the poverty line.

      1. I assume nothing about poverty pushing people into cars. But I’m painfully aware that many jobs, including low-wage jobs, are accessible only by car or bike, including in suburban/rural King County, and even more so in neighboring counties. In theory, the pool of employees seeking such jobs should be smaller, so they can ask for higher wages, but I suspect that is not the reality, as many employment seekers aren’t fully aware of their market advantage, or haven’t developed a sufficient sense of class solidarity. I’m sure I’m over-simplifying my butchering of Econ 101.

        One of the frequent arguments against fare increases is that fares are already close to the point that driving becomes cheaper. I don’t buy it for most cases, but it is frequently invoked, including by Mayor Enslow for Sounder commuters.


        The percentage of riders paying with Business Passport ORCA may be an important element of the analysis later this week.

    2. I’ll hazard a contrarian opinion: income-dependent transit fares are not good policy. Why?
      1. Best-practice examples: countries with mature, highly used transit and better income equality than the U.S. tend to have higher farebox recovery than we do, and no greater adoption of low-income fares.
      2. Focus: transit policy should focus on transportation and land use, and income-inequality should be addressed by tax policy and direct income subsidy. Mixing the policy objectives will lead to unintended consequences, and more complex and error-prone decision making.
      3. Dilution of public support for truly effective income-equality efforts. “Easy” income equalization via subsidized transit fares will help some low-income people but not enough to make a large impact on the overall problem, while providing “I gave at the office” cover for folks to oppose the direct policies (such as a progressive state income tax and state-wide minimum wage increase) that would actually move the needle.

      The question is complex, and if I were a board member casting a vote, I’d have to swallow hard to vote either for or against. But there are good reasons to be skeptical, and they should be taken seriously.

      1. To be contrarian to Jim: We’ve had decades without low-income fares, and still no Guaranteed Minimum Income. And if GMI can’t single-handedly solve the problem of inequality, than it is yet another Good being the Enemy of the Perfect, so by your logic, we should not do it.

      2. Nor do any of the individual fare policies single-handedly wipe out cash fumbling. Should we not have implemented any of them?

        1. Brent, “do what we can, don’t wait for perfect” is a good argument, and it’s why I’d swallow hard. But cash-fumbling is a good example of the focus / complexity problem: social justice arguments have been brought forward frequently AGAINST cashless operation, on the basis that low-income folks are more likely to use only cash in their daily lives. Fair enough to argue that ORCA LIFT might sooner make cashless operation politically feasible, but the fact remains that social-justice arguments have likely delayed a change that we all know will make transit faster and more efficient.

        2. Specifically, some people have only three or five dollars at a time, so prepaying an e-purse is a significant burden.

        3. I agree with Mike. It would be easier for me to get behind eliminating cash if we didn’t have $5 Orca cards and $5 minimum purchases. In a worst-case, you’re looking at $10 to get on the bus.

          This of course is bad for visitors too, and occasional bus riders. It would also be nice if the cards were more widely available. And if we adopted more rider-friendly policies, like daily and monthly fare caps, or even a 30-day pass that isn’t tied to the first of the month.

      3. #1. Income inequality and a weak social safety net is what creates the need for low-income fares. In more egalitarian countries people don’t have to choose between transit, rent, food, medicine, and getting to a job interview. As for farebox recovery, I’m not sure how to compare it given these differences.

        #2. It would be great if the state and county would adopt this policy, and fund income subsidies and Access separate from the transit fund. But we can’t force them to do it, so the net effect of punting it to them is to throw poor people off transit or force them to beg the driver for a free ride. And on RapidRide and Link, to convince the fare inspectors not to take them off the train, photograph them, and send them to court. As Link and RapidRide become a larger percentage of the transit infrastructure, this will become a bigger issue.

        #3. If it serves all poor regular riders who bother to get a card, isn’t that a large impact on the overall problem? It helps them get around on transit without cutting as much into their limited income. Isn’t that the problem we were trying to solve in the first place?

        1. Mike,
          About e-purse funding as a barrier – many off-board payment systems allow for single-ride tickets. In principle, Metro and ST could do the same thing.
          About fare evasion – that won’t go away, of course. It will be interesting to see what the reduction actually is.
          About impact to folks who do take advantage of lower fares – yes, certainly valuable for them, and not to be dismissed. But I still think 100% off-board payment and other efficiency improvements are of categorically higher priority, and that we won’t move the needle on overall income inequality impacts until we tackle income inequality head-on.

        2. Jim, it seems we are both raising fares and collecting more sales tax for transit, which results in a double whammy on lower-income people. Sure Lift doesn’t solve all the broader problems, but it does provide some welcome relief for some of the people who need it the most.

    3. This reminded me about something I’ve been wondering. Why does ST run route 590 when Sounder does that same thing?

      1. Two reasons, I expect: to conveniently deliver passengers to various points north and south of King Street Station, and because without the 590 the Sounder would be overwhelmed and struggle to meet demand.

      2. also Route 590 is less expensive than Sounder. There are some riders who are price sensitive, and will steer towards the less expensive option, though in some cases sacrifice time to take a longer ride. So, it becomes a question, just like the HOT lanes. You pay extra to gain some time back? riders choice.

      3. In addition to going farther into downtown Seattle than Sounder some 590 trips go farther into downtown Tacoma… I think it has a wider span of service and runs more frequently than Sounder, and certainly ST can adjust its frequency and span more freely than Sounder’s. Also I think the 590 can be a little faster some times of day, since it takes a more direct route with fewer stops, though it’s certainly less reliable.

      4. While there are a significant amount of people who take the sounder from Tacoma or points south to Seattle, a good deal take the trains to the green river valley. A lot of people disembark in kent for work destinations.

      5. An additional reason is that the 590, while not as reliable, is often faster northbound than Sounder is.

      6. 590 from T’dome Station to 4th & Pike ~56 min.
        Sounder ~59 min.
        Arguably Sounder is more consistent/reliable.
        Sounder ~$9/boarding (backing out the stupid Sounder North costs)
        ST Express ~$6/boarding
        Subtract the fare and it “costs’ ST about $2.50/person for the 590 vs $4.25/person for the panache of the train.
        Of course if you could add cars and haul more people the cost per boarding would drop for Sounder. But short of dropping Sounder North, which has to happen eventually, the cost of buying more rolling stock that sits idle most of the time doesn’t pencil out.

        1. You’re timing the 590 to Pike Street; shouldn’t you be timing it to Jackson for comparison with Sounder? And don’t forget to add a couple minutes to the Sounder time to head up the stairs for a transfer.

    4. If LIFT is a King County program, will non-King County residents get the discount? How will they get LIFT cards? Will ST start qualifying people and issuing the cards itself?

      1. If ST adopts the plan, probably a LIFT applicant probably has to go to a King County place to apply. Both Snohomish and Pierce Counties are not interested at this time, so it probably be a small number of applicants (those who normally cross county lines), since LIFT not applicable to INTRA Snohomish or Pierce rides.

      2. “LIFT not applicable to INTRA Snohomish or Pierce rides”

        That means that extending LIFT to all ST routes is not really true and does not fully simplify the fare structure as its purported goal was. It will also cause inverse fare cases where Everett to Seattle costs less than Everett to Lynnwood, and Lakewood to Seattle costs less than Lakewood to Tacoma.

        1. It’s particularly stark when the fares are raised to pay for this — raise fares systemwide to pay for a discount only available to riders in a single county, or trips that touch a single county? That’s unfair to a lot of people, and unfair in a way that relates to common complaints (justified or not) of Seattle-centrism in our transit system.

        2. Oops, I meant for those who would try to use Community Transit or Pierce Transit for INTRA County rides. LIFT would not be accepted there (as low income fare). LIFT would be accepted on ST Express routes, I did not make that distinction clear. Sorry

      3. If LIFT is a King County program (which I think it is) how is it that Metro, let alone ST are being asked to contribute a dime? As far as I can tell it’s a social welfare program that King County decided was a good idea. I agree, it’s a good idea; but King County should come up with the money or drop it. I have lot’s of great ideas if only I could force my neighbors to pay the bill :=

        1. For Metro’s part… it’s a King County agency that gets more revenue from King County taxes (your neighbors, I suppose) than the farebox? Whose policies and planning are always influenced by politics (any public transit planning is political by definition at least as long as it’s not profitable and sometimes even if it is)?

          ST, on the other hand, might as well be in another state — it only has political, planning, and operational ties to Metro…

        2. Metro is King County, and under the county council’s authority, so if the county tells Metro to take LIFT out of its revenue, it does. Also, it’s widely believed that Metro’s fares are at the point where they can’t go higher without either a poor people’s discount or a public revolt, so it had to enact LIFT in order to raise the general fare.

          The fact that ST is not under the county’s authority, and Pierce and Snohomish Counties are not participating, makes it odd that it would increase its expenses to conform to a King County program.

    Comments are closed.